Top 20 of 1936
20. Mr. Thank You
Mr. Thank You is the nickname for a bus driver who calls out his appreciation for people (and chickens) who move out of the way of the road when he is driving down it, which is pretty delightfully stupid considering they would end up being run over if they didn’t. The Depression has hit Japan, and even the children need to work no matter how bad the adults feel about the upcoming separation (the daughter is going to be working as a maid when they get to Tokyo) and loss of innocence, slowly drawling out every word (apparently, the movie was largely improvised despite being based on a story, and was shot on location to boot). While the titular character is a blandly pleasant nothing who only has a few gradually revealed interests (he is the first to go hunting for sweets and drink after the characters want some), he still manages to bring out the best in others via his one kind quirk, from the girl and her mother slowly opening up and becoming less sad about the state of things that they cannot change, to a modern woman that flirts with him while shutting down an obnoxious fellow passenger and has fun the whole ride through by drinking and smoking. Hiroshi Shimizu clearly loves everyday people, with even a random Korean woman who is building a tunnel getting a scene to showcase her personality (she was a real worker and Koreans were incredibly marginalized in the 30s, showing a beautiful progressiveness). This world feels lived in and authentic, like a Richard Linklater film brought to life several decades early, complete with minor metacinema touches discussing the talkies that had recently made their way across the oceans. Everyday individuals are making brief little connections every single day, ranging from a shout of appreciation from a bus to the more long term relationships of a trip across the mountains to the biggest city in the area. Everyone is made a little less alone because of these, but the ones most important to us can just as easily slip out of our lives. It is a lightweight feather of a movie that can easily knock you out with its casual observations on the time and human nature as a whole, like a buried time capsule that has not really aged a day. Fitting that the two movies with “Mr.” in the title are so close in their ideas and quality.
Favorite Moment: The Korean tunnel worker.
19. Everybody’s Woman
Max Ophuls was legendary for his tracking shots and dollies, but Everybody’s Woman does not really utilize that, opening with a woman going into the hospital and being anesthetized, with a groaner of a title card explaining that she is having a flashback as a result of being put under the gas. It is the one real bum note in a movie that has a narrative that spreads itself so far and thin that you have to wonder how deliberate the weird plot machinations are, even while admiring it for so firmly marching to its own drum beat when telling the incredibly simple downer of a tale of the titular character, Gaby, who drives a married teacher to successfully commit suicide (her hospitalization is the result of her attempting it herself) and is punished for his actions. For once, the lead is totally not responsible for what happens in an Ophuls, and while some have criticized Isa Miranda’s performance, I think it is a great one, with extra credit for navigating the insane narrative, where sudden passions for various rich men manifest themselves suddenly and as obstacles that cannot be surpassed, rather than a beautiful thing to embrace. The exuberant desperation and commodification of female passions is a thing to behold, as are the sudden cuts that destroy what might initially appear to be tracking shots to the person introduced to this work via the power of Earrings of Madame de…, with its heroine who is both a heroine and a victim as Gaby’s successor, with the only difference as just how complicit the lead of this is in her demise, allowing herself to fall if only to feel the exhilaration for a few precious seconds. She is, to be quite blunt, kind of a huge asshole, but fascinating in the ways she winds up gaining what some might call negative karma and others would call making enemies. Most notable is the level of unusual goodness in the sound work, especially for a director who usually focused on the visual side of the affair, with overlapping dialogue constantly coming into play at the parties. Fitting that a movie that has this particular name would be for everybody, and thus nobody due to coming too early in the auteur’s career to make a real dent as among the high points in his filmography. Youthful energy that would inevitably be tamed down is ever-present.
Favorite Moment: The expulsion.
Favorite Moment: Confession to a priest.
17. By the Bluest of Seas
Boris Barnet holds some cache in a very specific circle of cinephilia that tends to focus on the hardcore and the Andrei Tarkovskys of the world, and while I have not yet seen The Girl With the Hat Box (which some people with good taste really love), his two prior works that I had seen (Outskirts and House on Trubnaya) left me rather cold even if certain aspects impressed me formally. Thankfully, they turned out to be practice for By the Bluest of Seas, which aims for the simplest of pleasures before concluding on a note that sticks in the mind, helping the sea shanties and shots of the ocean go down and remain in the system a little easier even as they are already fairly pleasurable on the surface level. Despite the majority of the picture being nothing other than a portrait of a small community of three on a boat featuring two men playfully fighting over the same woman as they journey around the oceans, and the push and pull rhythms of their friendship as they enjoy their lives, we get a real sense of being on board with a group of people so enthusiastically into the ideals of Communism that it feels like a parody of their behaviors on the director’s end, like when Masha gets mocked by the boys for going out and buying something nice for herself when they are feeling the full force of camaraderie, only to turn the tables on the ones who were too harsh on her for it by rejecting both of them as potential lovers in a neat long con on their bubbling conflict that makes everything we have watched feel more retroactively interesting. As a commentary on the conflict between the individual and the collectivist that feeds into the problems of the romance ideals, you could definitely find something there, but it is buried pretty deep thanks to the plot drawing a little from L’Atalante’s well in that it is just a chronicle of a time in these people’s lives that may be bettered, may turn into a worse age as it passes them by. Who knows and who cares? Just enjoy the feeling of the sea spray in your face, it is cool and blue. I am happy to finally be in love with a work by Barnet, no matter how much effort the journey could have been.
Favorite Moment: Double rejection.
16. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
Frank Capra’s prior Lady for a Day was an interesting disappointment, with some awful choices in the field of showing us just how May Robson’s character handled going from an apple seller on the city streets to a glamorous bachelorette destroying all the promise laid out in the opening when she played her character as so extreme that her friendships were a pleasant, rootable surprise. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is his redemption for that, with Gary Cooper’s titular role getting into the very large sum of money he has inherited just as quickly, but that is used as the launching point rather than something to divide up the three act structure. A humble individual who likes to play the tuba landing twenty million dollars gets some of the driest “fish out of water” comedy jokes you could imagine pulled out of it before we move to the notoriously corny director making one cynical observation after another about the nature of the rich not helping the poor no matter how they came into their wealth, then giving us a happy ending with everything getting validated anyway thanks to the director’s eternal optimism of the human spirit. Still, the lows of the struggles with the newfound fortunes, with people on all sides making different demands ranging from poor people wanting help to the rich wanting a party for the so called Cinderella Man that he has no enthusiasm for even without his new servants offering to do the dressing for him. The simple message is the sort of thing that never quite gets old even if the sheer level of humanism combined with that can occasionally be a little too heart overheating, and it cannot rightfully be called within the director’s top tier, let alone his best. It is definitely the work that combines the best qualities of CapraCorn, though, with It Happened One Night’s snappiness meeting Bitter Tea’s weird cynicism, and foreshadowing It’s A Wonderful Life’s optimism in the human spirit no matter to what level things sink to. It does not aim for the harsher emotional peaks and crescendos like in that diagram from the trial, but the ride never ceases to be a pleasant journey, filled with fun details that add to the richness of Cooper’s portrayal in what (italics) might (/italics) be his finest hour, a full portrayal of a man utilizing whatever talents and virtues he was born with.
Favorite Moment: Playing with a shoe.
Fritz Lang’s love of the densest possible mise en scene got a full workout in his Hollywood debut work after fleeing from Nazi Germany right in the opening scenes of Fury, with a gorgeous pan through some bridally themed storefronts before we see Spencer Tracy (in his only good performance and, probably not coincidentally, his breakout role that sent him to the top of the heap) and Sylvia Sidney looking at it happily. She is about to move out to the west and get a job to support her parents, though, so we spend about ten minutes idling around a German Expressionist’s vision of Chicago, getting a dog who gives birth to puppies and having fun. He stops by to visit her, but things go badly when he hits a town that has been rocked by a kidnapping scandal, and he has a dollar bill that matches their marked bills. With a town full of deranged barbers who talk too much on the subject of cutting throats to gossiping shrill housewives, we are still firmly in the mob mentality mode of M, complete with a montage that feels a bit like it comes out of a comedy of the word spreading. The lynch mob tries and fails to burn the man to the ground, and Tracy’s response is the rational one of trying to get the townspeople convicted for murder in their participation. Sounds like Oscar bait medicine, but it goes down as if it were candy, with Hollywood’s tacked on ending of a sappy speech at the end being the only concession to middlebrow taste, and even that is not terrible thanks to Tracy’s choice to portray the character as broken down by a nasty system of humans going for judgement rather than empathy, rather than some noble vanilla individual. And the technical aspects are Lang at his peak, with a tracking shot from the POV of the rioters being particularly insidious and making the police officers defending the building into statues. Justice may be blind, but a wrong conviction is just as unseeing and far louder and nastier. The day is saved, thankfully, by cinema itself, in a meta touch that works just as well as an endorsement of movie love as it is a cynical glimpse into Hollywood’s self promotion functioning at maximum throttle even then, with gloriously corny dialogue related to the art of the production to boot.
Favorite Moment: Tracking shot of the riot.
14. Libeled Lady
Libeled Lady is a comedy about four people, and thus you would expect that many great performances based on this ranking…yet sadly, we only get three (and some unfortunate stuff with a Chinese manservant that knocked this down a few slots). Guess who the dud is: Jean Harlow, William Powell, Myrna Loy, and Spencer Tracy. If you guessed the last one, congratulations, you are fairly familiar with older cinema. Much more shocking to a general audience member today is just how good Harlow is in this, fully sexy in her casually determined, sensitive yet gritty nature in snatching up her way in a potential marriage, for even with certain viewers being familiar with her excellent work in Red Dust a couple of years earlier, she hits the same heights here and in a more mainstream production to boot, one that zips through rattling dialogue about a heiress suing a newspaper and getting tricked by a reporter, all at what was an unbeatable pace for the time. The film snagging a Best Picture nomination yet nothing for the stars in the acting categories, likely due the category confusion engendered by the new Supporting category, is a sad little trivia detail that nevertheless should not detract from The Thin Man’s stars doing their act all over again, with Powell getting the best line when he describes Loy’s eyes in a way that is most decidedly not romantic or gushing. Director Jack Conway is not going for anything boundary pushing in his direction, but it is easily his finest hour, with nothing intruding upon the superb script that was written by four (my personal theory is that each wrote for a different character, because scripts by committee are usually a fucking wreck). There is no depth in this scenario, no real commentary on the way we should see the world or its characters do, so just enjoy the empty calories of this silly, lightweight scenario as a break from two of the heavier works of that year, even with the darkest pictures of this year having plenty of lightheartedness thrown into the mix. The fluffiness does match some of the outfits the women wear, does that count as a theme or something to be analyzed? Maybe there’s something there, but I’m too busy looking at the gigantic hat that our leading, libeled lady wears in a scene. I want a few for myself in every color!
Favorite Moment: First wedding argument.
13. Let’s Go With Pancho Villa
Let’s Go With Pancho Villa is a massive step up from the last Fernando de Fuentes film I saw in both budget, scope, technical aspects, and scripting. It was also, apparently, a massive budgetary failure that slammed his career to a halt. While the director has the posthumous reputation among certain circles as the non racist equivalent of John Ford, particularly due to his low key hatred of Hollywood’s fictionalization of his people (look at the godawful Viva Villa for a glimpse at what I mean), he also seems to owe a bit to Renoir in his humanism, even though I have no idea if those movies got play in Mexican cinemas. The gang of men who make the decision that is captured in the title, hoping for Mexican independence, immediately find themselves stuck in a hellish landscape that looks rather like the trench warfare in All Quiet on the Western Front and gets edited like Sergei Eisenstein, intercutting between the guns firing off endless bullets while a woman makes tortillas and men split logs. The fight for the homeland has plenty of macho camaraderie to pump the resistance up for the battles, best displayed in the scene where the leader teaches his followers how to shoot from the hip when one of them gains a pistol, and impresses them all by knocking the tips off a cactus, but everything else is senseless, from the combat to the resistance talking under the stars about their desires to die in a certain way. It concludes with a final shot that is senselessly awful and grim, a man walking away from a horrible past into an uncertain future after losing everything he loved. Watching this right after They Were Five posits some eerie parallels between the De Fuentes and the Duviver, and it is not hard to see why a general audience would be so resistant to such an inky, cynical vision of a conflict that was still a fresh wound in the minds of the people, and that portrayed the leader as a human who nevertheless could be cold to his hero worshipers thanks to the circumstances requiring it. Some may call this propoganda, but it is so firmly on the side of the individual that stands to gain the least and lose the most that this does not seem to be a fair descriptor. It burns us alive without us asking why.
Favorite Moment: Gun lessons.
12. They Were Five
You really only recognize Jean Gabin’s character in They Were Five if you are like me and unable to tell faces apart in male-heavy ensembles along these lines, assuming you have seen Grand Illusion before this (cannot imagine how anyone would see this before that but if anyone has, leave a comment). The title refers to a gang of just that many friends, who collectively win the lottery despite being broke. They immediately wake up their entire apartment building, a maze of rooms and hallways that practically feel interconnected, to celebrate with champagne and have some fun, forgetting their romantic and political issues for just a few moments. They decide to pool the winnings to start a restaurant by the river together (this was originally a Jean Renoir project), but it cannot last due to internal strife. The movie may be a little longer than average, but it feels so breezy thanks to the camera running and craning through all the locales, including the place where they start their business that strongly resembles their unpleasant home, with planks that need to be held down by human bodies when it rains at first. Everything echoes, from a phone conversation that revolves around wasting a manager’s time that repeats itself once the group is narrowed down to a desperate twosome, and while the allegory relating to the failure of France’s populist movement is an easy one to apply to the inner machinations of the group, it also works on its own merits as a study of characters whose defining traits are what bring them together and break them apart. As the building becomes more stable, the collective becomes more dysfunctional, whether it is due to jealousy over a woman or political issues related to refugees. Gabin’s character makes one last attempt to keep his final friend from going away, giving up the woman whose love they both craved, but in a final blow, the property is taken away in a cruel twist, from the man who lost it to begin with. In the end, the ending is a stranger choice than expected, and frankly not the best, but at least we get a gorgeous sequence of objects within the restaurant while notes ring out for each that is highlighted. All you need is a close friend, not everyone to like you, and a source of life nearby in the form of some water.
Favorite Moment: Champagne for everyone.
11. Sisters of the Gion
Do not be fooled by the upbeat music that plays over the opening credits of Sisters of the Gion. It is a lie, especially when you realize that it is a movie about geishas with the radical feminism of Kenji Mizoguchi poured on top of it as it quickly shoots through a tragic tale of loss, fittingly opening with a bunch of men shouting over each other for an auction of furniture that a man named Furusawa must auction off after going into bankruptcy. The aesthetic and script are Ozu cranked up to eleven. His lover Umekichi wants to help him, already painted for the streets, but her plainly dressed sister Omocha is skeptical and thinks she is wasting her time and money. The outfits are a lie, with the latter quickly coming up with a plan for the two to get rid of Furusawa’s useless self and find wealthier patrons to keep them supported. While Isuzu Yamada as the latter is predictably great, furiously indicting the world of men while playing what few cards she has in it in a way that feels shocking and progressive even today, only letting down her armor occasionally to great effect, the former Yoko Umemura, much more unknown nowadays, holds her own as the gradually corrupted innocent. Everyone always feels separated, even when casually strolling down the lane together and having a conversation. This is a world designed to make sure that no one can become casually intimate no matter how deep their sexual relationships are, and everything is a transaction rather than genuine camaraderie. The relevance is startling no matter how dated, in the way that people who try to live very different lives end up in the same boat thanks to their sex and class burying them alive, with greater burdens for lesser sins. It would all be very drily funny (the characters crack jokes and poke fun at each other in their moments of genuine chemistry) if it weren’t so depressing. It ultimately culminates in an act of violence that is shocking and still inevitable, yet we have only been watching for a little longer than an hour, making all the development of this awful moment more impressive. Maybe not Mizoguchi’s best, no, but the first time he really hit the ground running as a director, never looking back except to mine his past for awful memories of love and loss.
Favorite Moment: Final bedside rant.
10. The Devil-Doll
Tod Browning and James Whale make themselves easily compared by being the first of the horror directors to bring in the golden age of the genre at Universal. Whale’s reputation has arguably held up better over the years thanks to the substance beneath the stylings of his two Frankenstein movies, but Browning’s Freaks is just as much of a torchbearer for the art of scares, and his Dracula is simultaneously overrated and underrated. Sadly, the former Browning resulted in him slowly getting stuck in director jail, and his last shout of glory was in The Devil-Doll, and he was policed during the production by MGM from making something truly transgressive. Thankfully, he overcame censorship in a small way by making something not entirely unlike Bride of Frankenstein with all the unsettling subtext removed, instead giving us pure empty calories of camp and mild spooks. Lionel Barrymore was always a ham, and while his scenes as himself are a perfect fit for a picture like this, having him play a man who disguises himself as an old woman to sell dolls that are not only real people who have been shrunk down (ah, plagiarism; cannot imagine where that came from) results in scenes of him putting on a stereotypical old biddy voice to hawk tiny people to the unsuspecting idle rich, who have their jewels stolen and occasionally causing paralysis. All this for revenge over his wrongful imprisonment. It is completely stupid, but it is also just plain fun even if the jokes play very stupidly, and the double exposure used to capture tiny dogs on a desk or a horse running around in circles is both clever and results in some stunning shots. Rafaela Ottiano as Barrymore’s partner, Malita, quietly steals the show even with the most blatant ripoff of a certain beehived monster’s white streaked hair and a demise that mirrors it, a series of strange behaviors and leaning on a crutch that add up to a genuine oddball that happens to have been stuck with a lunatic. You have almost certainly seen this picture before thanks to what a ripoff it is of a model that got itself established only a single year before, but it is hard to complain when Whale was off working on Show Boat and unintentionally bankrupting everyone. The careers of these two men were far too brief, but what they gave us is well worth treasuring.
Favorite Moment: Doll sneaks around.
9. Story of a Cheat
The Story of a Cheat would inspire a movie, most likely indirectly but you never know, over 75 years later: the second half of Miguel Gomes’ Tabu, which focused on a silent film take on colonialism that explored how people remember the past by only using narration, no dialogue outside of a few clever cheats as an older man recounted his romance with a woman in the wilds. It is a real “oh my god” moment in its inventiveness. Yet this same technique was being used in the 30s by the now forgotten Sacha Guitry. “Show don’t tell” may be violated to death here, but it encourages us to look for the details in the gag, the contradictions and the spaces in between the simple statements of a man recapping the aftereffects of his theft of some money to buy marbles, resulting in crime caper misadventures and everyone else in his family of twelve dying as a result of some bad mushrooms that he was not allowed to eat, an incredibly dark joke that gets accompanied by a light, cheerful, plinking score as the traumas are hidden underneath the jovial exterior (the character becoming, horrors, a dishwasher is treated with more gravitas). The jokes are incredibly literate (it is a book adaptation) when they are not going for visual mise en scene pleasures, with my personal favorite being “she looked 25, but she was 24” on the, um, “dialogue” side and a gag involving a pocket watch on the visual level. Even the music plays along, with romantic swooning ballads playing as he works as a doorman at an expensive restaurant and sees the lifestyles of the rich and famous. While this sort of technique would be old hat if it was used more than once every century or so, it feels fresh and inventive here, with the necessity of putting us in a character’s mind resulting in the invention that Guitry displays in showing us the phony value of becoming a con artist. The only person who gets to talk is the director himself, fittingly, providing the narration and a role as the older character (he remains unnamed throughout). This and the opening scene that thanks the cast and crew are truly the loudest argument for both auteur theory and the power of the silents that you could throw into your story, and the French New Wave had not even come along yet.
Favorite Moment: Mushroom joke.
8. The Only Son
Practice occasionally makes perfect, and while Yasujiro Ozu had made several great films by the time that sound pictures were introduced to Japan, The Only Son was his newest calling card and debut at the talkies at the same time, and it foreshadowed Tokyo Story but in the inverse. Focused on a widowed mother named Tsune who works very hard to support her son Ryosuke getting an education and becoming the great man that he wanted to be as a child and still desires even now, and he eventually ends up living in Tokyo. She comes to visit him (along with a new daughter in law and infant grandchild), and the parade of melancholy sadness begins, with the new couple running out of money while trying to keep the mother entertained and it very quickly coming out that Ryosuke’s job as a night school teacher is not making him happy in the least, along with lying about the fact that he worked for the City Hall. How much of it is simply not being talented enough, and how much of it is a defeatist attitude that he has brought upon himself to allow himself to be stuck in a muddle and drag others down with him? He is clearly a good person who is capable of doing kind things for others, so why is he not enjoying his teaching work, and if he hates it, why does he make a promise that will seal him in even further at the end of it all? These are questions nobody can answer, but at least the resolutions of a woman who does not have a purpose other than to provide for her descendants thanks to society’s constraints and her status as a widower are a clearer path to an endgame of sorts. As a predecessor to the current recession, Ozu is spot on, thanks to the Depression in Japan being not too far off in the struggles people underwent to find work and eke out a living. Despite the final shot’s expression of sadness and pain, things will ultimately turn out fine in my opinion (as opposed to Late Spring’s ending that makes it quite clear that the after effects of this are going to be absolute downers). The parent has learned about her son’s good qualities, and he is planning to advance himself. Life could be worse, although it could be better too.
Favorite Moment: Watching a talkie.
7. Crime of Monsieur Lange
The Crime of Monsieur Lange, one of the many films from Jean Renoir’s incredibly productive period as a director in the mid-30s, is notable for featuring the great humanist’s single most unlikable character in what turns out to be a sad little acknowledgement of the Popular Front. Coincidence? I think not. He clearly had his upcoming masterworks boiling away inside of him, angry over the rise of Fascism, one of the few pros of as dark a time as this in our histories. The characters in this film work at a publishing house, with the poor Rene Lefevre character (see also: Le Million) toiling away under his nasty boss (Jules Berry). The most crippling issue with this is that the latter was a stage actor making his film debut and it shows, while the former’s flatness that seemed deliberate and perpetually ready to crack and reveal something new in the Clair work has turned into him retreating into his shell even further to the point of monotonousness. Still, with such an introverted individual who wants to write American Westerns, you would expect more appeal to an American audience, particularly when his creativity is savaged by the boss placing advertisements for energy pills into his story before publishing it. Berry’s Batala is also emotionally manipulating his secretary, borrowing money and not paying it back, and is facing a court trial. He proceeds to fake his own death, but the inmates take over the asylum and run it as a collectivist movement. The Western pieces turn out to make a huge profit for all the people after several rounds of delightfully sunny interactions that feel like the sort of thing that Robert Altman would draw on so heavily for his later masterpieces, but when Batala reappears, he demands a piece of the pie, which ends with him getting murdered in a gorgeous circular shot. Crime does indeed pay, and the people who are considering turning in Lange let him go, and we get yet another closing shot from this year of characters retreating into the horizon. Unlike Let’s Go With Pancho Villa, it is unironically and sincerely hopeful, despite the fact that a justified murder feels like a potentially twisted ideal to strive to. Still, as a metaphor for the approaching tides of Nazism, it is potent, for sometimes the only thing you can do with evil is snuff it out entirely.
Favorite Moment: Final shot.
6. My Man Godfrey
In one of the most bizarre pieces of Oscar trivia ever, of the sort that could only occur in a new category’s first year during the days when what would be considered worthy cinema further down the line would be harder to parse as an audience member, My Man Godfrey managed the feat that will likely never be repeated of having a nominee in the four acting categories (former married couple William Powell and Carole Lombard in the leads, Mischa Auer and Alice Brady for supporting), and Best Director to boot…yet not scraping up a Best Picture nomination, in a lineup that frankly had plenty of room to spare for such an enjoyable piece of screwball that poked fun at a relevant topic in the shape of the Great Depression, acknowledging some harsh truths about how idolizing the rich did not help matters one bit, starting with that gloriously pretty credits sequence and leading into Powell’s character refusing to play trophy for a rich girl (Gail Patrick in a terribly underrated bitchy performance) and helping her sister instead, who gives him a butler job as a thank you. Turns out her entire clan is an utterly deranged troop of parodies of humans, stifled by their luxuries and lifestyle into gaining unusual personality traits, consisting of an airheaded mother and a Russian caricature who is a hanger-on to the main members of the Bullock clan as the Oscar nominees and Eugene Pallette, gravel voiced obese racist, as her appropriately cantankerous father that disapproves of everything that happens to his lifestyle. Some of the late game goings on in this are a total cop out, with Godfrey being revealed as the son of a different wealthy family, but all we should really care about is Lombard’s genuine dizzy insanity, a performance that runs itself as fast as possible to the edge of the cliff before trying to gleefully throw the audience off of it, while Gregory La Cava keeps the pace chugging along so that the gags are constant and always funny, with all the more joy to be gained from familiarity with the personas of the stars involved in the production. William Powell’s snarky intellectual persona gets a healthy workout as the straight man in the romantic couple, for once, and it is strangely a shame when the plot points start to kick in to give us a conflict and resolution.
Favorite Moment: Dish wiping.
5. A Day in the Country
Just barely qualifying as a feature length film by my rules (you couldn’t have added a few more minutes to make it easier to decide, Jean?), A Day in the Country makes a strong case for art that has been marred in some way, in this case being incomplete due to bad weather forcing production to be stopped (although it was never going to be as long as a standard feature, as it was planned to be part of an omnibus project, so in this anecdote the rumors do not hold much weight). Hard to imagine in the finished product, thanks to how lovely and sedate the river looks, but he was also having a busy year thanks to the other projects he was putting together at the time. But why change the beautiful thing that we have? We get to the trip right away as opposed to suffering through the preparations, with the mother and daughter of the main family immediately being set upon by two men from the area, one a romantic (who goes for the former woman) and one a bit of a pervert. It’s sort of stupid and minor, but what it conjures up is a whole world of love and loss, where everything is relaxing and the emotional crises is the conclusion rather than the bulk of the story, no matter how creepy the men may come across at times when they mourn their lack of love life before opening a window and seeing precisely what they desire (see also: Boudu Saved From Drowning). Reality and poetry are in the same countryside, and that makes it a very special place to spend some time, no matter if the stay was a brief occasion where you practically need to pack your bags upon arrival. The younger pair of lovers have a more stereotypical dramatic courtship to the lazy times of the mother just having fun on the side, but Sylvia Bataille’s character’s confused passions contains the whole world, complete with her single tear turning into the rainstorm that supposedly tore the film into shreds and ends the story quicker than you would think at any rate. The hours passing cause the river to flow and the weather change, and it cannot be stopped, even as it opens and closes great sadnesses arbitrarily. Savor this day, for it might be all you have as you drift away into nothing.
Favorite Moment: Looking out the window.
4. Carnival in Flanders
“Something wicked must have been leaking into the air around this time” was my main takeaway from Carnival in Flanders, the second film from the deeply underrated Jacques Feyder that I have seen, and the third film from this year (give or take regarding eligibility dates) that has a deep sense of lightheartedness giving way to something much more rotten. They Were Five and Let’s Go With Pancho Villa ended on grim notes relating to the final dissolution of groups theoretically meant to combat a common enemy after plenty of balance between the light and the darkness, but Carnival in Flanders goes for the upbeat route. A story of a village in Belgium that is besieged by the Spanish during the invasions of 1616, and declare they will be spending the night in the town. The leaders of the town immediately envisage the worst in a flashback involving ransacking and raping. It’s shocking stuff, and even a slightly silly score does not detract from how fucking inappropriate these visuals are for a movie that was made in the mid-1930s. (It is also the best sequence because if your copy’s subtitles are slightly out of sync, you can just gawk at the sight of a baby being thrown upon spears-don’t worry, nothing gory, just implication.) Thankfully, calmer heads prevail in the shape of the women, and everything basically turns into Babette’s Feast with delicious feminist underpinnings (which I have not actually seen, this is pure plot summary), complete with the mother hen declaring “Let’s do without the men,” before launching into a speech that whoever did the subtitles did a lousy job of translating to an army of identically dressed ladies. With that, the feel good part begins, but the writing has an underlying taste of acid thanks to the rise of the Nazis. This is pure fantasy of a world where the invaders are actually quite sensitive and having an affair with the handsome Duke who leads the foreign troops is a viable way of enjoying oneself as opposed to an act that would always backfire hideously. Between this and the twisted identities percolating throughout Le Grand Jeu, it is awfully tempting to bang the gong hardest for Feyder’s works among the underrated directors of this time, even if Dorothy Arzner and one hit wonder Mario Peixoto are also leading that particular pack. It’s like Lubitsch, but somehow, strangely modern.
Favorite Moment: The motivational speech.
Horrendously underscreened and arguably William Wyler’s finest hour as a director (and he had one hell of a career when he was being consistent), Dodsworth is one of the most viciously depressing screenplays ever penned, but also gives us exactly what moviegoers of almost any tastes hope for every time we step into a movie theater: complex characters bouncing off each other and providing conflict where all sides are rootable. It is practically the American answer to Jean Renoir or a much less improvised predecessor to Robert Altman’s ensembles, and the lack of Academy Award nominations for Ruth Chatterton (in a performance that will absolutely shock anyone who had previously seen her two nominated roles, among the worst Best Actress nominations ever) and Mary Astor is both a sign of category confusion resulting from the first year of the Supporting category of the awards and just plain old bad taste (ignoring the terrible selection of winners for a second, Maria Ouspenskaya’s only scene is a memorable moment that livens up the final minutes, but her nomination just for that is more than a little ridiculous). Walter Huston’s inability to win the trophy is a real black mark on the Academy’s decision making, a performance that reels through a whole lot of anger as his frankly pretentious, childish wife that has some very stupid ideas about how to handle their money grows all the more unbearable in her various delusions that he directs to places that are not exactly the right channels, namely in the shape of Astor’s American divorcee while things are still able to be kept under wraps and in putting too much control over the poor woman who simply wants to have fun with her newfound money, damn the consequences. While the two primary women get scenes together which are adept as early cringe dramedy, such as Chatterton’s terrible attempts to appear lighthearted and frivolous about Astor’s concerns over her aging as she wears a dress that is perfectly childish, the portrait of the dissolving marriage is what really haunts, with incredibly dark manipulations and inappropriate flirting on both sides of the fence, with the final destruction of their bonds being treated as like ripping off a Band-Aid. You do not even need to watch the movie, although you’d be depriving yourself of some very capable shots, but it would work equally as adeptly as a radio play.
Favorite Moment: The age conversation.
2. Les Miserables
The Raymond Bernard take on Les Miserables is, to be quite blunt, a long fucking movie, four hours and forty one minutes in the most complete restored version (divided into three parts) of Raymond Bernard giving everything he had in him to an adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel that easily outclasses the Hollywood adaptations (both the two hander 30s version and the 2012 musical, both previously covered in LBaO), and the number of others, in how well it replicates the scope and emotions. The photography has the Expressionism of Wooden Crosses, but in a more gray and realistic fashion that immerses us into a thoroughly grimy world that has been corrupted beyond repair by the refusal to acknowledge the innocent and the poor. You have never seen Jean Valjean quite along these lines thanks to Harry Baur’s stunning leading work, fleshy and a bit oafish in his casual cruelties that morph into something nobler as he adopts Cosette. Javert is not let off the hook in any way for the cruelty of his actions, and everyone else gets lit in a grim light, with Fantine’s sacrifice of her teeth and hair looking disconcertingly realistic (thankfully, we only see the aftereffects of her disfigurement) in a way that looks like a horror movie. Her lying sick in bed recalls Vampyr, and the also singly named Florelle gets to trace out her full arc under a camera that makes everything look canted and askew, with woods out of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a symptom of a world gone wrong and out of balance. It becomes outright chilling when Marius and Cosette’s wedding, whether intentional or not (and Bernard’s work strikes me as too smart to ignore this where Hugo did not make it explicit), makes it clear that Marius ultimately cared more about joining the upper class because of his love than actually trying to promote equality. For something to pay full respect to the source novel while also staking out its own claims to great commentary on the nature of the conflicts at hand is a true rarity, and a clear argument for getting this into the realm of “canonical,” obscene length and all. The parts may be uneven in quality (Part Two feels the most strained), but all the grand sweeping emotions of a creation like the musical get refined into an object that is intensely pointed in its bite.
Favorite Moment: Refusal to give up a child’s coin.
1. Modern Times
There is some debate over what the best Charlie Chaplin film is, but for me, the answer is very clear in the little mini debate between City Lights and Modern Times. City Lights’ jokes are a bit like vignettes, although they all provide plenty of laughs and connect neatly, but Modern Times is a mesh of simple but profound commentary on the nature of working and making it in the world, all while being perfectly hilarious from beginning to end, with not a dud joke in the bunch and several that you might miss (a rarity for the Little Tramp’s broad silent comedy tastes mixed with extreme sentimentalism). The first act is probably the best of them by a few hairs, with the twisting of the bolts that turns into twitching (I Love Lucy, much as I love it, could not quite reach these heights with that chocolate scene) giving way to the fucking hysterical machine that feeds its employees, with no ear of corn ever getting more of a workout as a comedy prop until Claire Denis’ Bastards (sorry). Yet the miracle of this movie is that it can go from a broad farce that was probably dated as early as 1936 about the nature of the Depression and work (LOL at how greedy the factory owner is!) to something far more grim and thoughtful about how a broken system can force people to the bottom and never let them get back up again, even if it is only the result of several accidents and contrivances, and an oil can squirting nervous breakdown. Yet the Tramp is willing to change in fundamental ways to please us, with a dark joke at the prison that I will not spoil except to say that I did not know that the substance that plays a role was a mainstream thing in the 30s, to his final song number, pidgin gibberish that demonstrates that yes, he is now part of the titular age, although the final makes it clear that he will never quite fit in. Yet the effort is what counts, and we could learn something from Paulette Goddard in her inability to let the world get her down until the one time in the movie where she needs a pick me up. Everyone needs a hand sometimes, even if the one being proffered comes from a small man with numerous jail stints.
Favorite Moment: Feeding machine.